Prof. Rivka Feldhay: Professional Evaluation or Political Persecution?

Whoever has been holding on to the belief that the activities of radical right-wing organizations in Israel such as Im Tirzu (“If You Will”) satisfy themselves with scattering threats and intimidations has lately been forced to realize that these groups are aiming much higher, as they are currently dangerously close to bringing about the actual closure of an existing university department. Several weeks ago, the subcommittee of the Israel Council for Higher Education (ICHE) publicized its approval of a proposal recommending the prevention of new students from registering to the Department for Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in the upcoming school-year. If this proposal is approved by the general assembly of the ICHE, it will inevitably lead to the closure of the department. The proposal presented itself as deriving from the conclusions of an evaluation process that was undertaken by a professional committee, appointed by the ICHE in order to promote the department and improve its academic achievements. However, a closer look at the details proves that the link between the proposal and the committee’s recommendations is entirely unwarranted. The professional committee, which found much to praise in the department alongside the criticism it expressed, listed a series of steps to be implemented by the university. Ben Gurion University immediately acknowledged the committee’s demands and submitted a workplan to a follow-up team, also appointed by the ICHE, which approved the plan and wrote that if it is executed the option of closing the department, which was mentioned as a last resort in the original report, will be abandoned (by the university, not the ICHE!). The university proceeded to grant the department three new positions and meticulously supervised the process by which the candidates were chosen, and the follow-up team expressed a deep appreciation for the steps taken by the university in response to the criticism that was voiced. Finally, after the positions were filled, the ICHE follow-up team commended the department and the university management for their implementation of the recommendations and added that they expected the new approach, aimed at diversifying the curriculum and research methods, to continue to guide the department in the future, based on the assumption that such a change inevitably occurs through a gradual process.

In light of all this, the proposal approved by the ICHE subcommittee to prevent new students from registering for the upcoming school year is an absolutely arbitrary decision, bearing no relation whatsoever to the work of the follow-up team. In fact, it stands in stark contradiction to the team’s evaluation. Such an act is unacceptable not just because it comprises a crude intervention in the autonomy of university institutions as anchored in the law of the ICHE, and a brutal violation of the principle of academic freedom that has been a fundamental part of the university since its formation in medieval Europe. This decision—if it is approved by the ICHE plenum—is, in my eyes, utterly senseless, especially when viewed alongside another decision that was passed several weeks ago, granting university status to the University Center in Ariel (at the West Bank) based on an inadequate evaluation process that included not one professional expert from abroad—as testified by the head of the Planning and Budget Committee, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg.

In this state of affairs, the only way to interpret the recommendations of the ICHE subcommittee is as a right-wing political act aimed at harassing the department whose staff members belong, for the most part, to the left and hold a critical approach to the government. If implemented, this decision will lead to the indecent burial of the academic evaluation processes initiated by the ICHE and will undermine trust in it in the future. In addition, such a decision means a de facto politicization of higher education in Israel, creating a state in which lecturers are persecuted because of their political views as well as their professional and critical positions. In short: the oppression of the spirit and freedom of the academic. Taken together with the worrisome events that have been taking place in the Israel Broadcasting Authority, the recurring attempts to undermine the independence of the government’s General Attorney, and the domination of the press by means of the right-wing tabloid Israel Today, this last step comprises a castration—no less—of the guardians of democracy vis-a-vis the government. A democracy without free criticism is a contradiction in terms; such a regime can no longer be called a democracy.

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